Should you panic over an impending swine flu pandemic? It's early days yet, so it's hard to tell. So far reports suggest that a couple of thousand people in Mexico have suffered from the malady and that more than 150 people there may have died of it. On the other hand, all of the cases (around 50) so far identified in the U.S. have been mild and no one has died.
How dangerous this outbreak will be depends on a number of factors including the virus' inherent deadliness and its ease of transmission. Why the virus seems to be killing people in Mexico and not elsewhere is a puzzle. One often mentioned concern is that this new flu virus may set off a "cytokine storm" in younger adults who have strong immune systems. Basically, strong immune systems overreact causing organ failure. However, reports that 20 or so American high school students have come down with mild versions of the disease suggest that such fears may be premature.
On the other, preliminary information indicates that the virus may transmit fairly easily from person to person. Some have suggested that quarantine might be used to stem its spread, but quarantine will be ineffective if the disease is passed on before symptoms occur.
In 1976, the Ford administration orchestrated a massive vaccination campaign against a version of the swine flu that infected 7 soldiers and killed one at Fort Dix in New Jersey. That pandemic never occurred. The current outbreak has already spread to as many as 20 countries and the World Health Organization says that it cannot be contained.
While it will take several months to produce a vaccine against the disease, the good news is that the Centers for Disease Control say that it can be effectively treated using the anti-flu virus drugs Tamiflu and Relenza. In addition, it may also be good news for the U.S. that we are now moving into the summer months since some recent research found that influenza transmission is much higher when relative humidity is lower such as it is indoors during the winter months.
I am away from home traveling (lots of flights) for work and vacation for the next couple of weeks. As semi-professional hypochondriac, I am not panicked. But I do wish that I had thought to pack my stockpile of Tamiflu. You know, just in case.